Ars Poetica: A Case for American Political Poetry
by Greg Mosson
Why should poets address political issues, ask some critics with arched disapproving eyebrows, and then often they answer that politics its too timely a subject for quality poetry. Question and the answer miss the point. First of all, any subject matter is timely in poetry. Robert Frost’s classic second book North of Boston is almost entirely comprised of narrative dialogues of people right in the middle of things, and yet the poetry he crafted with it will remain relevant as long as the English language does. The poet in the classic sense always faces the technical difficulty of making life at hand relevant to the teeming generations. The question is much more interesting if reversed: Why should poets exclude political and social issues from their poetry?
If poetry is “a statement in words about an experience,” to use critic Yvors Winters’ definition in The Function of Criticism; then why should the political aspects of “experience” be excluded from poetry? Helen Vendler in her book Poets Thinking sees “poets as people who are always thinking, who create texts that embody elaborate and finely precise (and essentially unending) meditation.” While 20th century history shows many examples of totalitarian governments oppressing artists who dare to address state matters in their work, why should poets on their own narrow their thinking to the nooks and crannies of just personal space (as if personal space can be so cut off from other people and the social and natural worlds). Lastly, if poetry is “the record of the best and happiest moments of the happiest and best minds,” as the romantic poet Shelly says in A Defense of Poetry; then do these moments automatically exclude everything political and social for every poet? In 19th century American verse, one finds a poet as solitary as Emily Dickinson, and of course a poet as socially gregarious Walt Whitman. While these
poets have different emphasis, both poets span the spectrum of the personal, social, and political. The most accurate portraits of human life always will touch on the social and the political, because people live in social and political milieus. In the reverse sense, looking at a mid-20th century political poem like Allen Ginsberg’s “America,” Ginsberg decries the war and poverty of the 1950s, which remain timely in the first decade of the 21st century, despite their “timeliness.” Ginsberg’s poem asks in modern language, “Am I my brother’s keeper” when he says in the opening lines, “When will we end the human war?” At the same time, the poem is a personal portrait of a man harried by the social milieu he cannot accept.
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